In his new book Unclean Lips (find an excerpt in Lilith’s Winter 2013-2104 issue) Josh Lambert, academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, traces the history of Jew and obscenity in America, which which has in the past been treated gingerly because of problematic stereotypes. Yet Lambert writes that in each epoch of free speech and obscenity debates, Jews have been involved for different contextual reasons relating to our status in America and the mores of the time. He talked to Lilith about feminist depictions of prostitutes, Sarah Silverman, birth control and censorship, and modern-day modesty crusaders.
Sarah Seltzer: Where did your interest in obscenity in a Jewish context came from? Was there one writer or artist who provided the doorway to the topic?
Josh Lambert: Basically it was reading Philip Roth, and finding myself compelled by his twin obsessions with Jewishness and obscenity. Then, my grad advisor asked me to read Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot, an amazing novel that not nearly enough people have read or discussed. And I felt like I had another side of the story.
SS: Crackpot! You write that it posits its prostitute protagonist, and her decision to allow her son to sleep with her unknowingly, as a feminist alternative to the Portnoy’s Complaint narrative. Do you think that the novel’s feminism mixed with its taboo subject is why it has faded while Portnoy and its ilk flourished?